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Updated: November 17, 2013 16:00 IST

Gear up for the biotech boom

S. S. Easwaran
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Practical education: Industry-relevant training can equip students with the skills needed to make them employable. Photo: K.K. Srinivasan
The Hindu Practical education: Industry-relevant training can equip students with the skills needed to make them employable. Photo: K.K. Srinivasan

Opportunities for biotechnology students are many, but they need to refine their skills before joining the industry.

Biotechnology is the answer to many of the challenges the world faces today. From finding solutions to climate change through green technologies, and discovering novel drugs to addressing health concerns, modifying crops to meeting food security concerns, and tackling the energy crisis through biofuels — biotechnology is doing it all.

The sector has great scope for development in India, thanks to the robust scientific talent, biodiversity and growing agricultural needs, among other factors.

The biotechnology industry in India is valued at about $11 billion, having grown at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of more than 20 per cent over the last 10 years.

If the biotech industry in India is to realise its full potential, several issues need to be addressed. India’s skills deficit needs immediate attention. Despite the presence of quality research institutions and investments in the field, India still does not have a substantial pool of well-trained manpower. It is important to develop talent to fill this gap.

Skills gap

At present, there is a wide gap between the quality of biotech education and the needs of the industry. If the biotechnology sector is to sustain its growth of 20 per cent CAGR and attain a size of $100 billion by 2025, we will need to ensure that there is a good talent pool in the country. About 40,000 biotechnology students pass out every year from various colleges across the country. However, the lack of requisite skills means that not many can be employed by the 500-odd biotech companies in India.

On an average, 300-500 hopefuls apply for every new biotechnology-related job, but most are rejected as they are not industry-ready.

A lack of necessary laboratory equipment and space at many Indian colleges means many graduates would probably not have seen a basic biotech tool such as a gel apparatus. Such lacunae make their knowledge inadequate for an industry set-up.

After graduating with a BTech degree or a BSc degree in biotechnology, many students choose to pursue MTech, MSc or PhD degrees to develop their skills further and understand the industry.

With many Indian institutes struggling to recruit faculty who are equipped with the necessary critical, analytical and hands-on scientific experience required to teach, the quality of education is suffering.

Many Indian biotech students who can afford the fees choose to go abroad for higher studies, attracted by the possibilities of working in state-of-the-art labs and the aspiration of working for leading biotech innovators.

For engineering graduates and science postgraduates in India, job hunt can be daunting. Every year, thousands of freshers knock on the doors of biotech and pharmaceutical companies or universities and research institutes in India. Only a handful find jobs.

But among the successful candidates there are many who find themselves trapped in underpaid technical, marketing and administrative roles. Starting salaries are often unattractive as local biotech companies have to invest in training freshers for 1-2 years before they are job-ready.

Finishing schools

In India, there are a few finishing schools for biotechnology, and most of them were started in the recent past either by educational institutions or by various State governments. These schools seek to equip students not only with soft skills, but also help them specialise in their chosen field of biotechnology through a rigorous multidisciplinary approach.

Beyond finishing schools, a lot still needs to be done to address the acute deficit of industry-ready talent in India. Students aspiring for a career in biotechnology need to be exposed to various aspects of applied biotechnology. This is possible only with industry-academia partnerships so that the industry can spell out what is required in the real world and the academia can provide the required training.

Rigorous, industry-relevant training can equip graduates and postgraduates with the skills needed to make them employable in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.

The writer is academic director, Biocon Academy.

I happened to recently attend a Biotechnology Workshop organized by
the Government of India wherein several biotech entrepreneurs were
asked to speak up on this topic. One of the speakers revealed that her
State has a Biotechnology College/Institute for every 50 km stretch of
the Highways; but the quality of the graduates pumped out of those
institutions is abysmally low and those biotech graduates are not
employable.
Contrary to popular belief, Government of India never encourages bachelor's degrees in biotechnology; the idea is the prospective biotechnologist should be 'somebody' before she/he flourishes into a biotechnologist. The 'somebody' may be a botany graduate or a zoology graduate (Kiran Shaw herself is a zoology graduate!) or even a physicist or a mathematician! Then, take an aptitude test by GoI for
biotechnology at Master's level. The aspirant's interest will be taken
care of by GoI even after finishing PhD until further employment. Will the Helicopter Parents wake up?

from:  Balasubramanian
Posted on: Nov 19, 2013 at 10:42 IST
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